Best of Biotech in 2014


2014 has been a good year for science and technology, particularly so for the biological sciences. Click to know the top science news/breakthroughs according to Wired, The Guardian, and Scientific American.

Here are some major developments (subject to my attentional bias) that took place in biotechnology in 2014. These are grouped under six headings for simplification, but many of these lie at the confluence of multiple of these headings. That’s just how research in biotechnology is increasingly becoming — multidisciplinary.


 

Medicine

As vaccine against shows promise in initial trials, it is not the only major health scare that might just be nearing its end. Antibiotic resistance and HIV are in the fray too.

1. Eliminating HIV in cell cultures

Temple University researchers showed that it is possible to deploy a nuclease and a guide RNA to snip off the viral DNA from the genome of cultured cells. The guide RNA was delivered using the CRISPR-Cas9 technology (more below). The cell’s repair machinery seals its genome afterwards. Cells already expressing the combination were totally immune to HIV infection.

Challenges that need to be overcome are delivering this combination in every cell of an individual and accommodating for the high mutability of the HIV virus. But, it is the most promising solution to cure HIV someday.

2.  Quantum mechanics and antibiotic resistance

Nothing is unlikely enough to fall under the scope of quantum mechanics. Not even the most frustrating menace of the healthcare industry, antibiotic resistance. According to WHO, it is a major global threat to public health and people are dying of diseases that had been curable for long.

Understanding how bacterial enzymes are able to break down antibiotics could be the key. Bristol University researchers are employing QM/MM (quantum mechanics / molecular mechanics) simulations to discover the same by working on carbapenems or last resort antibiotics. The study could help in design of better drugs and to predict which drug to use in a particular outbreak.

Organ engineering

Advances in personalized medicine and 3D printing are making it easier to engineer whole organs. These hold much promise for transplantations and disease modelling.

3. Miniature stomachs

Last year, miniature peas and brains were grown in petri dishes. In 2014, it was mini stomachs or gastric organoids. Infection by Helicobacter pylori could lead to gastric ulcers and stomach cancer. But, the bacterium has hardly any effect in animal models, limiting the study of human gastric disorders.

Tiny organoid stomachs grown in lab. Picture credits: Kyle McCracken

The mini stomachs serve as ideal models to study prognosis of these disorders. Also, these might serve as source of replacement stomach tissue for treating ulcers.

4. Thymus grown inside an animal

Injection of reprogrammed cells that had transformed into cells found in the thymus injected into mice were observed to develop into a fully functional thymus. This could hint at a radical alternative to organ transplantations. At the very least, it holds great promise in regenerative medicine for the elderly since an aging thymus is linked to a weak immune system.

Barriers to transition into human therapies include  possibility of formation of cancers and developmental instability of these cells. These concerns are being addressed by research in stem cells.

Stem cells

The accomplishments of tissue/organ engineering owe most to the recent advances in stem cells.

5. Japanese mis-calculation

In January, Japanese researchers came up with an astonishingly simple way to turn adult mice cells into stem cells. Just subject them to stress — passing through a capillary, exposure to a bacterial toxin, or acid bath. These were termed STAP (or stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency) cells.

The efficiency of induction of pluripotency and the efficacy of their proliferation (into placenta) were higher than that for induced pluripotent stem cells. The study was heralded as a major breakthrough, but faced questions regarding the lack of reproducibility of the results. Later investigation proved that the study was partially falsified.

6. Cancer stem cells

There are many similarities between cancerous cells and stem cells. This led many to believe that there might be cancer stem cells that cause revival of cancers after therapies.  Other theories involved adult stem cells going awry or some differentiated cells regaining pluripotency.

A research team discovered something that serves as the concluding proof in favour of cancer stem cells. They observed that cancer-driving mutations originated only in a subset of malignant cells, and that only these were able to propagate the tumour.

7. Making insulin

The small protein, which has accounted for five Nobel laureates, best represents the evolution of biotech over the years. There’s still much room to innovate. Like injecting beta cells that produce insulin as and when required.

Or how to remove the immunologic and logistic inconvenience associated with the method. A Harvard team turned human embryonic stem cells into beta cells. This approach has the potential to totally cure diabetes within 10 days and is the biggest breakthrough in treatment of diabetes in decades.

Genomes

Fall in costs of sequencing and synthesis of DNA dominate our near-term aspirations in biotechnology. But, much needs to be done at making sense out of the data as a whole-genome sequencing of the oldest living people failed to pinpoint genes associated with longevity.

8. First $1,000 genome

It looks like Illumina, despite contradictory claims from Ion Torrent, has won the coveted race to sequencing a human genome at $1,000 or below. The sequencer that made them win was HiSeqX. The $1,000 benchmark was long seen as the tipping point where genome sequencing becomes a mainstream clinical affair.

The number of human genomes sequenced this year was a staggering 228, 000. All of these at 1/5th the costs incurred in the Human Genome Project. Now, that’s a monumental shift.

9. CRISPR reverses disease symptoms

CRISPR is becoming a very popular technique for precision genome engineering. Just around a couple years in use and it has already been used to custom design wheat, mice, and even monkeys. But, the most impactful of its immediate applications lies in tackling diseases that can be treated by correcting a single gene.  Such as sickle cell anaemia or the Huntington’s disease.

MIT researchers cured mice of liver disorder caused by a single mutation. The disease symptoms were reversed after a single treatment. As the delivery method gets more efficient (nanoparticles, as compared to high pressure injection done by the team), the method will become translatable to human applications.

Synthetic biology

This year has seen more companies spring up in the field than ever before taking the total number to over 190. This was also the fourth year that more than 20 new companies were founded working in synthetic biology. I have documented some of this progress in my blog posts for SynBioBeta. The field has been equally kicking up on the research side as well.

10. An artificial cell

For the first time ever, researchers developed an artificial cell that has organelles and can perform all biochemical reactions. The polymer cell was built on a water droplet as a framework. Organelles were made by producing polymer spheres filled with enzymes. These were then encapsulated in another polymer to form the cell membrane.

The development is in sync with what Drew Endy, one of the pioneers of synthetic biology, has noted —

Testing of understanding by building is the shortest path to demonstrating what you know and what you don’t.

 11. … and an artificial chromosome

The genes in a yeast chromosome were replaced with synthetic versions of them. In over 50, 000 changes made, the repeated sequences and the “junk” DNA was removed. The new chromosome was integrated into the yeast and was found to be acting natural. Despite the synthetic chromosome (nicknamed synIII) being considerably shorter than the  natural, it was even better.

It is possible to scramble this chromosome into a multitude of permutations and combinations to generate variants. With yeast as a popular choice in industrial synthetic biologies, this development would further the rise of product biotechnologies.

12. … and some artificial enzymes

This one is even more artificial than the last two cases. Three years ago, Philip Holliger led team had created six xeno-nucleic acids (XNAs) which can carry nucleic acids just like DNA does. Now, the nuclease and ligase were created to cut and join these XNA strands.

The enzymes were made from XNAs folded into particular conformations. The dual property (as catalysts of reactions and carriers of information) is akin to that found in RNA enzymes. Therapeutic XNAs could possibly cure diseases such as cancer or HIV by cleaving some genes. Also, since these won’t be broken down by our bodies natural enzymes, these will persist longer.


 

Hope you enjoyed the list. If you think any other breakthrough had been worthy of making it here, please write about  it in the comments.

Happy New Year 2015 !!

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